African Diaspora

Black Britons And The Politics Of Belonging: An Interview With Kennetta Hammond Perry

Situating the post-World War II mass migration of Afro-Caribbeans to Britain in the context of transatlantic political movements for citizenship and self-determination, Perry chronicles how migrants “reconfigured the boundaries of what it meant to be both Black and British” while living and working in the imperial metropolis. Unwilling to accept second-class citizenship, Afro-Caribbean migrants formed grassroots organizations to protest racial discrimination, lobbied for legal reform, and repurposed popular Caribbean festivals to secure to their rights as British citizens.

Despite their formal legal status as citizens of the British Commonwealth, Afro-Caribbean newcomers encountered virulent discrimination in London and other cities in the metropole. As you detail, waves of anti-Black mob violence erupted in Nottingham and Notting Hill in 1958 and a group of White men murdered Kelso Cochrene, a thirty-two year old carpenter from Antigua, in 1959. Can you say a bit about the discrimination and violence that Afro-Caribbean migrants confronted in postwar Britain?

Perry: A central aspect of understanding the experiences of a largely Afro-Caribbean first-generation migrant community, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, is the fact that these individuals were trying to resettle. Thus, employment and housing discrimination were two of the key arenas where they experienced open anti-Black racism—what at the time was termed a type of “colour bar.” It was not uncommon to find housing or employment advertisements explicitly barring non-White applicants. In the book, I draw upon Lydia Lindsey’s work, which details discrimination in the employment sector, where Afro-Caribbean migrants faced discrimination in their attempts to secure interviews, find jobs outside of some of the lowest paid tiers of the labor market, and have their educational credentials and previous work history acknowledged. Once hired, Afro-Caribbean migrants also endured discrimination in terms of the conditions that they faced on the job where they oftentimes experienced hostility from White co-workers.

Housing was another critical arena. Access to housing was a really big issue for Black migrants, and that has to be seen within the context of the larger postwar rebuilding process that severely limited access to housing for working-class people overall in the U.K. The housing crisis was really acute in urban areas where you see higher concentrations of Afro-Caribbean migrants, so there was tremendous difficulty in terms of accessing quality affordable housing.

Obviously, as I note in the book, episodes of violence represented some of the most virulent forms of anti-Black racism, which affected Afro-Caribbean migrants’ bodies and their ability to live and walk the streets in their own neighborhoods with a sense of security. In response, the book highlights some of the campaigns waged by Black British organizations including the Inter-Racial Friendship Coordinating Council and the West Indian Standing Conference, which focused on challenging the state to respond to the needs of Black citizens in their efforts to secure safe neighborhoods and adequate police protection. Likewise, it is important to note that organizations like the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination tried to shape the scope of anti-discrimination policy in the mid 1960s by launching a summer campaign to document discrimination occurring among local businesses, housing agencies, and employers against Black and Asian communities in Britain.

In Chapter Three of the book, you suggest that newspaper accounts about the violent “race riots” in Notting Hill and Nottingham and the activities of White vigilantes like the Teddy Boys shocked White readers in Britain and around the world. “These news stories,” you maintain, “contradicted the mystique of British anti-racism that informed the ways that White Britons viewed themselves, their relationship to the Commonwealth, and Britain’s image in international politics.” Can you explain the “mystique of British anti-racism” and its origins?

Perry: In the book, I try to think through the pervasive silence regarding racism in the U.K., which oftentimes became the means to erase histories of the Black experience in metropolitan Britain. When I was examining the “race riots” in Nottingham and Notting Hill and how they become news internationally, I was struck by the fact that international commentators were shocked that “race riots” could occur in British cities. But how can we acknowledge a history of British colonialism—a violent, racist, and exploitative regime that operated globally—but yet not be able to comprehend the idea that “race riots” can happen in the U.K.?

One of the things that I discuss is how narratives about British abolitionism became the conduit through which Britain was able to imagine and caricature itself internationally as a tolerant, liberal, morally virtuous anti-racist nation—particularly in contrast to Jim Crow America. International reaction to the news of “race riots” in 1958 demonstrates the pervasiveness of this view of Britain as a place absent of racism. From the perspective of Afro-Caribbean migrants, I wanted to think about what it meant to gain visibility for your anti-racist movement in a context where the world imagined that anti-Black racism didn’t exist. To both expose and challenge these myths about the British nation, at times Black activists tethered their demands for full citizenship and social justice to internationally recognized images of U.S. racial injustice and Jim Crow as part of a strategy to give visibility to their cause. Places like Birmingham, Alabama, events like the March on Washington (1963), and people like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Stokely Carmichael, all of whom actually visited the UK during the 1960s, played important roles in helping Black Britons raise the profile of their struggle for rights.

As you highlight in the book, Afro-Caribbean women—particularly Claudia Jones and Amy Ashwood Garvey—played a pivotal role in mobilizing Black migrants in London. Can you tell us more about the specific activities of Jones and Ashwood Garvey and their impact on Black British politics?

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Claudia Jones, Paul Robeson, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Eslanda (Essie) Robeson, and unidentified couple (1959) New York Public Library Digital Collections

Claudia Jones, Paul Robeson, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Eslanda (Essie) Robeson, and unidentified couple (1959)
New York Public Library Digital Collections

Perry: I don’t think it’s possible to even talk about this period and Black political organizing without mentioning Claudia Jones. Amy Ashwood Garvey and Jones were comrades in struggle together, but they were also critical players in terms of organizing, mobilizing, and creating communities—Black communities—in Britain during the 1950s and the 1960s.

Furthermore, what is important about these two individuals is that they were pivotal in terms of establishing grassroots organizations. Claudia Jones was active in founding arguably the most important political organ in the U.K. among populations of African descent in the late 1950s and early 1960s—the West Indian Gazette newspaper—of which Amy Ashwood Garvey served on the editorial board. Jones was also influential in establishing a tradition of Carnival beginning in 1959. One of the things that is very interesting about Jones’s work with Carnival, an event that featured steel bands, calypso, beauty contests, dancing and Caribbean cuisine, is that it is reminiscent of the type of merging of social and political life that characterized Ashwood Garvey’s work at the Florence Mill Social Parlour, a local establishment where Black intellectuals including George Padmore and C.L.R. James gathered to socialize, exchange ideas, and cultivate diasporic political networks during the interwar period.

It is also important to note that Jones and Ashwood Garvey were both also very effective in terms of building advocacy organizations. Ashwood Garvey was co-founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.), but she was also a member of London-based organizations like the Nigerian Progress Union and the International African Service Bureau. Seeing her involvement later on in organizations that take shape in the 1950s like the Committee of African Organizations and the Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, which Jones is also a part of, shows a continuity between pre- and post‑war activism that cannot be ignored. It is a reminder that we cannot divorce Windrush-era Black politics from the type of Pan‑Africanist work that we usually confine to the interwar period.

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